Over the past three decades, the stop motion technique has established itself as one of the most inventive and expressive methods in the field of animation. Using puppets, cut outs, CGI and clay, as stand-alone pieces, borderline efforts or purely for special effects purposes, the style has become prolific in entertainment.
Accordingly, it has reared its head in a plethora of pieces, including everything from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou to The Science of Sleep, and Braindead to Army Of Darkness. Indeed, although first sighted in the formative period of the cinema medium, and then popularised on television courtesy of children’s favourite Gumby, it was the work of two pioneers of the method during the 1980s and 1990s that truly brought stop motion animation to the consciousness of the masses. Those men were Nick Park and Henry Selick.
Through the escapades of Wallace and Gromit (short films A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave and A Matter of Loaf and Death, and Oscar-winning feature The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) and a clever collaboration with Tim Burton (The Nightmare Before Christmas), each stamped their influence upon the medium, drawing in and regaling viewers in the process. Based on their success, other offerings followed (Selick’s James And The Giant Peach, Park’s Chicken Run, Burton’s Corpse Bride, Adam Elliot’s Mary And Max, and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox), with each bewitching audiences via breathtaking visuals and engaging stories. Selick’s most recent effort – the horror-fantasy hybrid Coraline - continues on in the imaginative spirit of its forebears, in a melancholy and magical take on acceptance and adolescence.
As one might reasonably expect given the title, the film centres on an eleven year old girl of the same name. Fiercely independent and individualistic, Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) likes to explore and antagonise, and hates being held back by adults because of her young age. When her mother Mel (Teri Hatcher, TV’s Desperate Housewives) and father Charlie (John Hodgman, Baby Mama) move Coraline from Michigan to Oregon, she is immediately less than impressed. Living in the rundown Pink Palace Apartments alongside eccentric neighbours – local lad Wybie Lovat (Robert Bailey Jr, The Happening), retired actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French respectively, of French And Saunders fame), and Russian acrobat Mr Bobinsky (Ian McShane, Deadwood) – she dreams of an existence that is more exciting, a wish that proves as dangerous as it is unfounded.
Coming across a secret door in her bedroom wall, curiosity implores her to crawl through the void in search of a new adventure. Looking just like the life she knows, the other world she uncovers comes complete with an “other” mother, “other” father, and “other” versions of her friends and acquaintances (with buttons for eyes and bursts of colour the main visual differences), seemingly offering an improvement on her every desire. Although lured in at first by the magical alternative reality, she quickly learns that things aren’t quite what they seem. With the safety of her real parents at stake as well as her own longevity (and her eyes), Coraline is forced to choose between the ideal and the actual, fighting battles within herself and against the evil “other” mother in the process.
Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 live action effort Pan’s Labyrinth (albeit without the war-torn undercurrent), the Academy Award, BAFTA and Golden Globe nominated Coraline is mystical and mysterious, enchanting and enthralling, and utterly breathtaking all at the same time. Perfecting the combination of youthful exuberance and dark insights, Selick’s creation (with the filmmaker writing, directing and producing) is both surreal and subjective, whilst remaining accessible and suitably sublime.
Based on the 2002 novella by Neil Gaiman (also the author of similar fairy-tale and big screen effort Stardust), from start to finish the film captivates through image and song. With a score by French composer Bruno Coulais (responsible for the soundtrack to The Secret Of Kells, another competitor for the 2010 best animated feature Oscar that went to Pixar’s Up) and a lone upbeat offering from They Might Be Giants, the musical soundscape enhances the vivid visuals, adding an extra layer of thematic resonance that underpins every shift in tone.
Although much has been made of the frightful leanings of the feature, the mix of elements ensures that adults and children alike will find joy and wonder amidst a few slight scares and spooks. With the alternating maudlin and mesmerising nature of the content taking precedence over anything more sinister or sordid, the overall package is a sweet and strange Alice In Wonderland-type fable, perfectly pitched as family fare. Indeed, Coraline is a rare creation: a horror-fantasy film for all ages. Haunting and daunting yet grounded within the equally nightmarish and wonderstruck context, kids will love the vagaries, adults will appreciate the depth, and audiences of all shapes and sizes will marvel at the measured feeling behind the immaculate images.